Text across the knuckles reads NADYA (woman’s name).
The ‘ring’ on the forefinger stands for ‘Rely on no one but yourself’, a ‘patsan’ one of the most privileged inmates VTK. Middle finger ‘the thieves cross’ of a pickpocket. Third finger: ‘I served my time in full’, ‘From start to finish’, ‘Went without parole’, the prisoner served his complete sentence with no remission for working with the system. Little finger ‘The dark life’ the bearer spent a lot of time in a punishment cell. The skull and crossbones, gun, knife and letter ‘K’[iller] denote a murderer.
This tattoo is a variation on the myth of Pometheus, who, after tricking Zeus, is chained to a rock in eternal punishment.
The sailing ship with white sails means the bearer does not engage in normal work; he is a traveling thief prone to escape.
On his right leg is the acronym ‘SLON: S malih Let Odni Neschastya,’ which translates to ‘Only Misfortunes from an Early Age.’
Text under this reads ‘Here is what [is killing us].’ The dagger, cards and money are a variation of the popular tattoo ‘These are the things that destroy us.’ Text at the top of the left leg reads ‘Few roads have been walked.’ Text by the knee reads ‘Love.’ Text on the shin reads ‘It [the leg] walks around the zone.’ The theatre masks on the right leg represent happiness (before prison) and sadness (after prison).
A snake around the neck is a sign of drug addiction.
The stars on the clavicles and epaulettes on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal authority. The Madonna and child is one of the most popular tattoos worn by criminals — there can be a number of meanings. It can symbolize loyalty to a criminal clan; it can mean the wearer believes the Mother of God will ward off evil, or it can indicate the wearer has been behind bars from an early age.
The stars on the shoulders show that this inmate is a criminal authority.
The medals are awards that existed before the revolution and, as such, are signs of antagonism and defiance toward the Soviet regime. The eyes on the stomach denote a homosexual (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face).
This man is a Muslim; his features also indicate he is not Russian.
Text on the arm reads ‘Remember me, don’t forget me’ and ‘I waited 15 years for you.’ On his stomach (left) is a religious building with a crescent moon. He is not an authoritative thief but has tried to imitate them with his tattoos to increase his standing within the prison. The lighthouse on his right arm denotes a pursuit of freedom. Each wrist manacle indicates a sentence of more than five years in prison.
This prisoner is a victim of syphilis and has suffered severe scarring to his face, eyes and mouth.
In the prisons and colonies, male or female prisoners suffering from venereal diseases (such as syphilis) are known as ‘buketniki,’ bouquet holders. They are also nicknamed after army ranks, depending on how advanced their condition is; for example, ‘Kolka whored around without taking any precautions. Yesterday the medic told me that he was already a “lieutenant.”‘ (An inmate suffering from second-stage syphilis is known as a ‘colonel,’ third-stage a ‘general.’) There are cases where people have contracted syphilis, AIDS and tetanus while getting tattoos under unsanitary prison conditions. Tattooing is forbidden in prisons and camps, prosecuted and punished severely by the authorities. The practice has acquired more status as it gets pushed underground.
The devils on the shoulders of this inmate symbolize a hatred of authority and the prison structure.
This type of tattoo is known as an ‘oskal,’ or grin, a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.
Text on the arm reads ‘Thank you Dear Motherland for my ruined youth.’
A dagger through the neck shows that a criminal has committed murder in prison and is available to hire for further killing. The drops of blood can signify the number of murders committed. Lenin is held by many criminals to be the chief ‘pakhan’ (boss) of the Communist Party. The letters BOP, which are sometimes tattooed under his image, carry a double meaning: The acronym stands for ‘Leader of the October Revolution’ but also spells the Russian word ‘VOR’ (thief).
Text across the chest reads ‘He who is not with me is against me.’
The swastika and Nazi symbols may mean the owner has fascist sympathies, though they are more usually made as a protest and display of aggression toward the prison or camp administration. During the Soviet period the authorities often removed these tattoos by force either surgically or by using an etching method. A tattoo of a mermaid can indicate a sentence for rape of a minor, or child molestation. In prison jargon the nickname for a person who commits this type of crime is ‘amurik,’ meaning ‘cupid’, ‘shaggy,’ or a universal ‘all rounder.’ They are ‘lowered’ in status by being forcibly sodomized by other prisoners, sometimes in groups.
The text above the cross reads ‘O Lord, Save and Protect your servant Viktor.’
Text beneath reads ‘God do not judge me by my deeds but by your mercy.’ Text above the waist reads ‘I fuck poverty and misfortune.’ The skull and crossbones show the prisoner is serving a life term. The single eight-pointed star denotes that he is a ‘semi-authority’ among thieves. The girl catching her dress with a fishing line on his left forearm is a tattoo worn by hooligans and rapists. The snake coiled around human remains (positioned on the middle third of each arm) is a variation on an old thieves’ tattoo. The snake is a symbol of temptation; here the snake’s head has been replaced by that of a woman, the temptress. Tattooed on the right side of the stomach is a version of Judith (1504) as painted by Giorgione; this is intended as a symbol of a scheming, seductive woman who betrays a nobleman.
The design of epaulettes tattooed on the shoulders is adapted either from a pre-Revolutionary uniform or an existing Soviet one; both indicate the bearer has a negative attitude toward the system.
They are worn by high-ranking criminals who might also have a corresponding nickname, such as ‘major’ or ‘colonel.’ Epaulettes with three little stars or skulls are deciphered as: ‘I am not a slave of the camps; no one can force me to work;’ ‘I am captive, but I was born free;’ ‘I’m a colonel of the zone — I will not sully my hands with a wheelbarrow;’ ‘The strong win — the weak die;’ ‘Horses die from work.’